Freelance journalist Anne Kostalas is fascinated by Canadians. She emigrated from Newcastle to Montreal two years ago and blogs about everything, from their excessive consumption of corn on the cob to the dangers of having a massage when you don’t speak French, in Dear England, Love Canada.
Here she writes of taking the night train from Montreal to the Gaspé Peninsula, a journey of contrasts which begins in Canada’s hippest city and ends in one of the country’s most remote and unusual landscapes.
We leave the beautiful people of Montreal about to enjoy a Friday night on the town. As the sun sets behind the mountain, from which the city takes it’s name, thousands of hipsters are heading for bars and restaurants in neighbourhoods which have been called the coolest in North America.
Our destination may not be hip but it is one of Canada’s best kept secrets. In 18 hours and 647 miles we will be in another world of forests, beaches, cliffs, wildflower meadows and bird sanctuaries. A glance at a map of Canada will reveal our destination – the lobster-claw shaped peninsula sticking out from Quebec into the Gulf of the St Lawrence.
The Gaspé a First Nations’ word meaning land’s end, is the same size as Belgium but has less than 140,000 inhabitants. It was first populated by Micmac Indians 2,500 years before the first Europeans and Basques, Bretons, English and Acadians have settled here over the centuries. It became known as the birthplace of a nation as this is the spot where Jacques Cartier claimed Canada for the King of France in 1534.
Our train follows a route east along the south shore of the Saint Lawrence river until Mont Joli, a town developed thanks to the Intercolonial Railway in 1900. Then we head south through the Matapédia Valley and skirt the edge of Chaleur Bay arriving in the Gaspé in time for lunch.
But first I cannot contain my childlike excitement at acquainting myself with my cabin, a double with private washroom. I’m confused by the two armchairs which no matter how I fiddle, I cannot make into a bed. The guard tells me not to worry – it will all be done for me during dinner.
In the dining car I fore-go the Montreal smoked meat option and chose the Gaspesian grilled cod and mash served by our cheery Maitre D’ who tells us he has worked this route for 35 years, and is an expert at pouring your beer without spilling it as the train lurches.
After dinner we explore the upstairs observation car with its glass-domed roof. Refreshingly they’ve turned all the lights off, so you feel part of the night as you watch the train snake around bends up ahead and gaze across the shiny metal roofs of the carriages. A moving victory for light pollution. No wonder one of the coach passengers has chosen to sleep here. We try taking pictures of the highway which for a time runs next to the train.
I return to my sleeping quarters to find the chairs I had wrestled with never did turn into a bed. They have now been neatly folded and my bunk has been pulled down from a secret compartment on the wall.
Feeling a little foolish I hop into bed and am at once transfixed by the night-time landscape. I can just make out the mile markers and the names of the towns in the darkness as we head towards one of the wildest parts of Canada. I spot Rimouski, the MicMac Indian name for moose and Trois Pistoles , named after a French sailor lost his silver goblet in the river here. It had been worth three gold coins or pistoles.
We cross the river in the darkness and with no view of the bridge which supports us I feel as if I will be tipped into it from my bed. Then we sneak into the middle of a sleepy village and the blue light of a few late night televisions are visible in the wooden houses.
Against all odds in my rocking cabin, I eventually fall asleep and awake in Matapédia to mist-covered hills, dark forests and a golden river. The rising sun reveals early-bird fishermen, already well ensconced. They take their eyes off their lines for once and turn to watch us pass by.
Back in the dining car for breakfast we study the map and realise that the train has already separated and those destined for Halifax, Nova Scotia have gone on their way as we slept. But we’ve got all morning until we arrive at our destination of Percé and I cannot wait to get back to my cabin to watch the landscape unfold.
A lone woman walker on a driftwood-covered beach waves at the train and later cormorants battle to hog every available inch of a small rock in the bay. People come to the Gaspé to see the rock at Percé, a majestic limestone stack off the coast, but also to visit the bird colonies at Bonaventure Island and hike the trails at Forillon National Park where the forests seem to tumble into the bay beneath it.
Soon I will be doing the same but for now, just a few more minutes to watch as a white bull lies down in a field, a man waters his vegetable patch and later dozens of women put their washing out on the line. It seems we have arrived in the Gaspé on wash day.
Departures three times per week on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays from Montréal, as well as three departures from Gaspé on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
Find out more